Virginias game Tuesday night against No. 19 North Carolina State is a must win for the Cavaliers. There isnt any other way to look at it.
Because of some horrible early-season losses, the Cavaliers have put themselves in a huge hole with respect to building a strong enough resume to earn inclusion into the NCAA Tournament. A win over the Wolfpack could spark a needed surge to make a push for the big dance, but Virginia cant afford to miss this opportunity.
Tony Bennetts Wahoos enter the contest with an Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) of 113, and a victory over the Wolfpack (RPI No. 15) would significantly enhance their ranking. At 14-5 overall and 4-2 in the ACC, it would also move the Cavalierss into the upper realm of the ACC, at least for now.
More important, however, is that RPI.
The NCAA selection committee doesnt solely use it to determine worthiness and where teams are seeded, but any team above the mid-70s can forget about it. The only other option to get into the field would then be to win the conference tournament. Thats why Virginia must beat the Wolfpack.
Problematic for the Wahoos are three losses in particular: at No. 114 George Mason; at home to No. 188 Delaware; and on a neutral site to No. 323 Old Dominion, which is 2-17 and dead last in the struggling Colonial Athletic Association.
Bennett says the loss to Delaware had multiple edges because it prevented Virginia from playing two games in Madison Square Garden in the Preseason NIT. Michigan, Kansas State and Pittsburgh were the other three teams there, so even losses to two of them, with a win over Delaware, would actually have helped Virginias RPI because its strength of schedule would be much higher than its current rank of 233.
I know when you talk about postseason you look at everything, and it is the whole body of work, but as a younger team trying to find yourself, you just keep trying to get better and better, Bennett said. And theres so much basketball left in the conference, and thats going to make your main statement.
And hopefully we can just play good basketball knowing weve got an excellent team coming into our place.
Virginia is more than capable of making the necessary run. Its best non-ACC wins are at RPI No. 47 Wisconsin (14-6, 5-2 Big Ten) and at home against No. 79 Tennessee (10-8, 2-4 SEC). The Cavaliers have also beaten No. 36 North Carolina in league play and overall is 4-0 versus the top-100.
But with just six more games remaining against teams in the top-100 four coming on the road after Tuesday, defeating the Wolfpack becomes even more important.
Bennett somewhat excuses his teams poor early results to its youth only three upper classmen play and injuries, including to senior point guard Jontel Evans, who still isnt 100 percent after having his right foot surgically repaired.
The Cavaliers are playing better of late, however, and Bennett is confident his team is learning how to step up. It has won three-consecutive games, and seemingly gets big games from various freshmen and sophomores each night.
I think when our team has played well, its had that we call it a servants mentality where theyve really tried to serve each other on both ends of the floor, Bennett said. And again, when either youre younger or you go against some teams and you say, boy, they man-to-man maybe have a little bit more in whatever areas, weve got to do it collectively and have that selfless mentality.
To serve itself a fighting chance at getting into the NCAA Tournament, Virginia must bind together like it hasnt all season in order to knock off a Wolfpack team that is more talented than any the Wahoos have faced.
But if junior Joe Harris, perhaps the ACCs most underrated player, Evans and forward Akil Mitchell play like veterans and to their potential, theres no reason Virginia cant notch that needed victory.